Red Sox

As MLB teams report, let's count the ways the Red Sox will be worse in 2020

As MLB teams report, let's count the ways the Red Sox will be worse in 2020

It is time for a Red Sox reality check. They were never, ever meant to contend in 2020.

This 60-game sprint will probably keep them from plummeting completely out of the playoff race, but let's not kid ourselves. They'll be in the wild card hunt in much the same way a 6-8 NFL squad technically maintains postseason aspirations come late December — by relying on mathematical gymnastics rooted more in hope ("If the Bengals and Bills play to a scoreless tie …") than substance.

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They're worse than they were last year, and they weren't very good last year. With Spring Training 2.0 set to open on Friday, let us recount how much has changed since 2019 ended with a disappointing 84 wins and the Sox 12 games out of the playoff race.

Before the season even concluded, the Red Sox fired Dave Dombrowski, architect of 2018's World Series juggernaut, whom they had hired in 2015 to put them over the top. They didn't view him as a builder, however, tabbing Chaim Bloom from the Rays to oversee what could be a lengthy rebuild.

Needless to say, a team that wants to win now does not fire Dombrowski and replace him with Bloom. That only happens when prioritizing the long view.

Bloom's first order of business, even if it took the entire winter to accomplish, was trading MVP Mookie Betts and former Cy Young Award winner David Price to the Dodgers. This provided much-needed salary relief. It did not make the Red Sox better, a fact Bloom acknowledged the night he announced the deal.

"I certainly think it's reasonable to expect that we're going to be worse without them," he said, "but we have real good talent coming back."

Right fielder Alex Verdugo, the centerpiece of the trade, may not be Betts, but he's a lot better than people think. He's also coming off a cracked bone in his back that sidelined him for the last two months of 2019 and would've delayed the start to this season if COVID-19 hadn't shut it down first. The Red Sox need him to be a star, and that's asking a lot.

Offense is supposed to be a strength, but it could be a problem.

In Rafael Devers, Xander Bogaerts, and J.D. Martinez, the Red Sox possess an impressive heart of the order. Perhaps Verdugo and the perpetually underachieving Andrew Benintendi can expand the attack. If they can't, the Red Sox could end up being no better than average offensively at catcher (Christian Vazquez), first base (Mitch Moreland), second base (Jose Peraza), and the entire outfield (Benintendi, Jackie Bradley Jr., Verdugo).

In an age when even teams like the Twins can suddenly mash 300 home runs, that doesn't sound like nearly enough offense to compensate for a pitching staff that has been absolutely decimated.

It's worth repeating exactly what the Red Sox lost this winter. In dealing Price, dismissing Rick Porcello, and disabling Chris Sale, they watched over 400 innings vanish. Because John Henry locked his checkbook below deck on the Iroquois, they replaced that trio with Martin Perez and, if he's healthy, Collin McHugh.

They're banking on left-hander Eduardo Rodriguez to repeat his breakout 19-win campaign, even though inconsistency has been a hallmark of his career, and they need forever-injured right-hander Nathan Eovaldi to give them a lot more than the 5.99 ERA he provided in just 67.2 innings last year.

After that? Hold your nose.

Perez posted an ERA over 5.00 and soft-tossing Ryan Weber, a favorite of manager Ron Roenicke, is expected to claim the fourth spot despite barely cracking 89 mph. The Red Sox hope McHugh recovers from a non-surgical offseason procedure on his elbow, but he's still ramping back up as he throws off a mound, and his spot in the rotation is more likely to be manned, at least initially, by an opener.

Overseeing all of this considerable change is Roenicke, who emerged from Alex Cora's scandal-fueled departure to oversee what amounts to an interim two-month season. Cora's leadership was indispensable to the 2018 title run, and there's no guarantee the 63-year-old Roenicke will be able to push the right buttons in a truncated campaign. Though the Red Sox have technically struck the interim from his title, it wouldn't shock anyone if they're in the market for a longer-term solution come fall.

So to recap: the new baseball chief is here to rebuild but can't spend any money, the offense looks top-heavy, the starting rotation is made of paper clips and gum, and the new manager might only be on the job for nine weeks.

Does that sound like a contender to you? Me, neither.

Jeter Downs comes out on top in latest Red Sox prospect rankings

Jeter Downs comes out on top in latest Red Sox prospect rankings

When it comes to Red Sox prospects, there's a new No. 1 in town, and considering how he was acquired, that's probably a good thing.

Middle infielder Jeter Downs is now Boston's No. 1 prospect, according to rankings released by MLB.com on Tuesday. He displaces former No. 1 pick Triston Casas, a power-hitting first baseman who dropped to second.

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Downs and Casas are the only two Red Sox prospects who cracked MLB Pipeline's overall top 100, checking in at 48th and 83rd, respectively.

Downs wasn't even a member of the organization until February, when he arrived from the Dodgers in the reworked Mookie Betts trade. While outfielder Alex Verdugo was considered the centerpiece of that deal from a big league readiness perspective, Downs is exactly the kind of player the Red Sox hope to stock their farm system with in the coming years.

He broke out during his age-20 season in 2019, smashing 24 homers, stealing 24 bases, and ending the year in Double A. He just turned 22 and is considered a future big league second baseman, though he has played nearly 200 games in the minors at short.

Casas, meanwhile, possesses impressive power of his own, with 20 homers in the minors as a teenager. Still only 20, the 6-foot-4, 240-pounder may not even be done growing, which makes him a potential power-hitting behemoth.

The rest of the top 10 shows a farm system in transition, and one that MLB ranked 26th in baseball. First baseman Bobby Dalbec is the No. 3 prospect, followed by right-hander Bryan Mata, outfielder Gilberto Jimenez, right-hander and Navy airman Noah Song, returning left-hander Jay Groome, outfielder Jarren Duran, and righthanders Thad Ward and Tanner Houck.

Before he blows it up, Chaim Bloom should give Red Sox a chance

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Before he blows it up, Chaim Bloom should give Red Sox a chance

Here at NBC Sports Boston, we like to run a segment on "Early Edition" and "Boston Sports Tonight" called "Buy or Sell," and from Chaim Bloom's perspective, the answer seems obvious — sell anything that isn't nailed down.

Except it's not that simple. Bloom's last-place Red Sox happen to reside in a flawed American League. If the season ended today, the Baltimore Orioles would claim the eighth and final playoff spot. The Orioles, in case you've forgotten, are terrible.

That's the sign of a garbage playoff system, but this is a garbage season. And before the Red Sox start filling any dumpsters, perhaps they should explore one.

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Huh? Hear me out.

The obvious course of action would be to strip the roster, and by the Aug. 31 deadline, that may be the only path available. But even after Monday night's 8-7 loss to the Rays, the 6-10 Red Sox are belatedly showing signs of life, and here's what I'd like to see before depressing the plunger: just one more stinking starter.

Maybe it's a prospect like Bryan Mata, even though the Red Sox have shown no inclination to promote one of their unproven minor leaguers. Maybe it's fireballing left-hander Darwinzon Hernandez, who's being stretched out to open as he returns from a bout with COVID-19. Maybe it's another organization's castoff, though the Red Sox recently passed on former Braves All-Star Mike Foltynewicz.

With three weeks until the Aug. 31 trade deadline, the Red Sox trail the second-place Rays by 2.5 games. They're not going to pass anybody in the standings if they keep trotting out two openers every five days, three if you count right-hander Ryan Weber. Their bullpen simply can't handle it. They've used at least five pitchers 10 times in 16 games, and they've burned through 24 arms in their last four games alone.

That's how someone like Jeffrey Springs ends up pitching an inning that matters despite an ERA north of 13.00, as was the case on Monday, when he allowed the go-ahead runs in the seventh inning of a game he had no business being near, except manager Ron Roenicke couldn't risk running Heath Hembree and Matt Barnes into the ground.

If Bloom could find just one arm, we'd have a couple of weeks to see if the Red Sox can escape the basement. Thanks to an expanded playoff field, the top two teams in each division will advance, and when you're chasing the Orioles, let's just say you should like your chances.

As it is, it's not like a fire sale would net much in return. While the market for prospective free agent Jackie Bradley Jr. or struggling outfielder Andrew Benintendi is negligible, the Red Sox should be able at least to drum up interest in DH J.D. Martinez and closer Brandon Workman.

Martinez is a legitimate opt-out candidate this fall, provided he builds on Monday's three-hit performance, which included his first home run of 2020. Workman is a pending free agent, and a rebuilding club like the Red Sox has more pressing needs than a 32-year-old closer.

The problem is reading the market. While this season will technically end with someone hoisting a trophy, teams may not be willing to part with pieces of their future when contenders like the Cardinals have only played five games in three weeks because of outbreaks. There also may be hesitation to take on future salary when the economic landscape of 2021 remains so uncertain.

And so if you're Bloom and the return is going to be depressed, why not give this team a chance? Maybe Martinez finds his swing. Maybe Rafael Devers overcomes a foot injury and does the same. Maybe another pitcher eliminates an opener from the weekly probables.

There's value in fighting to make the playoffs, and as long as it doesn't harm the future, why not try?